Monday, November 14, 2022

Interior Offensive Line Play Takes Center Stage: Austin Blythe


Interior Offensive Line Play Takes Center Stage as Seahawks Face Buccaneers in Munich

If the Seattle Seahawks want to extend their winning streak to five games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winning in the trenches will be pivotal against an opponent with star power along the defensive line and question marks galore on the interior offensive line.


11 HOURS AGO (November 12, 2022)

MUNICH, Germany - Spearheading their current four-game winning streak, the Seahawks have executed a remarkable defensive turnaround over the past month. After getting torched in the first five weeks of the season, they have allowed less than 13 points per game in their past four contests.

At the center of that 180 degree transformation, as cited by coach Pete Carroll and players alike, unleashing the defensive line with a more aggressive, one-gapping, penetrating style paid immediate dividends. Since implementing those schematic and technical adjustments, Seattle has racked up 19 sacks and dramatically improved a once-porous run defense, yielding under 100 rushing yards a game after surrendering north of 170 rushing yards per game in the first five weeks.

Seeking a fifth straight win with a historic Week 10 clash against the Buccaneers in the first-ever NFL regular season game in Germany on Sunday, the Seahawks will once again be counting on their defensive tackles to continue their stellar play in a matchup where the outcome may ride on which team performs better in the trenches.

Boasting plenty of experience with starters Poona Ford, Shelby Harris, and Al Woods as well as reserves Quinton Jefferson and Bryan Mone, Seattle has a stable of well-rounded, athletic veterans in the middle capable of doing damage defending the run as well as rushing from the interior. Over the past four weeks alone, everyone except Mone has produced at least one sack, while Harris has gone off with eight pressures.

Rolling into this weekend, the group as a whole should be licking their lips considering how much Tampa Bay's front line has regressed due to retirements, free agency, and injuries.

Only two years ago, one of the NFL's premier offensive lines stood out as a pillar for the Buccaneers eventual Super Bowl champion protecting Tom Brady and creating running room for Leonard Fournette. But the group now looks like a shell of its former self after standout guard Ali Marpet shockingly hung up his cleats at 28 years of age, Alex Cappa bolted for the Bengals in free agency, and star center Ryan Jenson injured his knee early in training camp.

In the aftermath of those departures and unfortunate injuries, Tampa Bay hasn't been able to run the football effectively at all this year, averaging a league-low 60.7 rushing yards per game. Though Brady has only been sacked 14 times, that hasn't necessarily been because of quality protection, as the team ranks 26th in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate metric. To the contrary, Pro Football Focus views the unit much more favorably with the seventh-best pass blocking grade in the league.

Nonetheless, with rookie Luke Goedeke ruled out for Sunday with a foot issue and Jenson likely out for the year, the Buccaneers will be playing a pair of second string reserves in Nick Leverett and Robert Hainsey in their place. This undoubtedly sets the stage is set for Ford, Harris, Woods, and the rest of the Seahawks defensive front to build off their recent showings against an undermanned, maligned unit.

But interestingly, anchoring a stout front line that helped guide the team to a Lombardi Trophy two years ago, Tampa Bay may have same advantage of its own on defense thanks to the presence of Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea and recent return of standout defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

While the Buccaneers have missed star pass rusher Shaquill Barrett, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last month, Vea has enjoyed a career year as a pass rusher. Leading the team with 23 pressures and 6.5 sacks, including bringing down Matthew Stafford twice in last week's 16-13 win over the Rams, the gargantuan 350-pound defender with an orbit of his own has been a one-man demolition crew creating stalemates at the line of scrimmage and collapsing pockets.

On the other side of the line, even while starting a pair of rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, the Seahawks have quietly built one of the most underrated offensive lines in football. At the center of that emergence, center Austin Blythe has brought much-needed stability to the position and his knowledge of coordinator Shane Waldron's offense coupled with his communication skills has been a major boon for the entire group.

Seattle has also received quality contributions from a trio of veteran guards, including recently launching a successful platoon between Gabe Jackson and Phil Haynes at right guard across from Damien Lewis. Aiming to keep both players fresh in the second half, they may continue rotating series next to Blythe for the long haul.

Making marked improvements compared to a year ago with three new starters in the lineup and excelling under the coaching of Andy Dickerson, the Seahawks rank fourth in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate metric and a respectable 12th in PFF's pass blocking grades. The team hasn't been quite as successful in the run blocking department, however, ranking 24th in Run Block Win Rate and 19th on PFF.

Though Blythe and the rest of his line mates have done a commendable job thus far contributing to a surprising 6-3 start, the group will have their hands full trying to deal with Vea and Hicks, who each weigh north of 330 pounds and can win with power as well as rare athleticism. Keeping those two at bay will be crucial for MVP dark horse Geno Smith to have time to throw to his bevy of receivers in the pocket and Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Ken Walker III to find any traction on the ground.

When the Seahawks and Buccaneers tangle in Deutschland this weekend, there will be no shortage of star power at the skill positions with the likes of Metcalf, Mike Evans, Walker, Chris Godwin, Lockett, and Julio Jones suiting up. But in this clash of first place teams carrying significant playoff implications, the victor will likely be decided by which interior offensive line best steps up to the challenge against formidable foes lined up across the line of scrimmage.

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